European research: new diagnostic technique for Ebola fever

February 26, 2002

Brussels, 25 February 2002

A European research project has enabled African and European research teams to successfully develop and test a new diagnostic technique for infections with the Ebola virus.

A new epidemic of Ebola haemorrhagic fever has been sweeping the Gabon since December last. Researchers have developed and tested a new diagnostic technique based on the detection of viral genomes in the blood of the person afflicted.

In the current epidemic context of Ebola fever the new simplified test appears to be highly satisfactory and provides the same level of sensitivity as the standard test. Patients can be checked far more quickly for the infection. The aim of this scientific cooperation is to achieve mass production of the test once the evaluation is finished.

In the words of Philippe Busquin, the Commissioner responsible for research, "this breakthrough shows the value of international, multi-disciplinary cooperation between African and European research teams in such a vital area for human health where the impact stretches beyond the frontiers of a single country and even a single continent. In particular, better knowledge, better early detection and better treatment of diseases such as Ebola fever are essential for us all."

International cooperation with EU backing began in 1998 and involved the Centre de Recherche Mérieux-Pasteur in Lyon (CRMPL, Association Fondation Mérieux and Institut Pasteur), the laboratories of the Centre International de Recherche Médicales de Franceville, Gabon (CIRMF), the Marburg Institut für Virologie in Germany, the Rotterdam Instituut voor Virologie in the Netherlands and the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal. The project was co-financed by the European Commission to the tune of some €500 000.

The impact in terms of public health is obvious in that diseases can be identified and preventive measures taken to avoid secondary infections. The new test for the virus, which is quick and accurate, will give us a better picture of any epidemic outbreak and help to provide suitable treatment for patients once it is available.

The Ebola fever is highly contagious and extremely virulent in primates and humans in particular, the death rate being as high as 88%, depending on the type of virus. To date, there is no cure for this disease. One of the most frequent forms of transmission is contact with the skin or secretions of the person affected. In Africa, identifying haemorrhagic fever such as Ebola and Lassa fever (1 million cases per year) is made difficult by the lack of specific symptoms at the onset of the disease. Symptoms such as fever and headache appear after 7 to 8 days of incubation. These are followed by abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, painful joints and conjunctivitis prior to haemorrhaging and often death between the sixth and sixteenth day of the disease.

Disease history

The Ebola virus has been known since 1976 in Africa, causing deadly epidemics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan. After many years of silence the virus started to reappear again in 1994 in six different places in Africa: Ivory Coast in 1994, DRC in 1995, Uganda in 1999, and the Gabon in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

There has now been a fourth outbreak of Ebola fever in the Gabon, at the end of 2001, in the region of Ogooue Ivindo (Mekambo). Haemorrhagic Ebola fever was diagnosed by the Centre International de Recherche Médicale de Franceville, Gabon, (CIRMF) on 8 December. A secondary outbreak then appeared in a village of Congo Brazzaville a few kilometres from the border following the arrival of patients from Gabon. The origin of contamination of the index-case person appears to have been contact with a large primate (chimpanzee or guerrilla) infected with the Ebola virus.

There is also an epidemic affecting large primates at the same time, since many guerrillas and chimpanzees, probably infected with the Ebola virus, have been found dead in the region. The epidemic is still not under control and so far there have been 42 confirmed cases, 34 of them fatal, and several unconfirmed cases are still in hospital. Many people who have come into contact with sufferers are also under surveillance.

DN: IP/02/306 Date: 25/02/2002

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